I’ve been thinking about schools. Actually I’ve been thinking about the economy, my state, baiting and switching, “significant,” politics, class sizes, four days, and education. Last week schools in Illinois took over the headlines and lead-ins to the nightly news TV programming. Illinois is not alone in this situation, but national coverage is on the wider and broader issues/difficulties. This state of affairs is considered local, and is not reported nationally. The situation has been brewing for a long time in the Prairie State (and elsewhere); but it is the economic downturn, declining state income tax revenues, and diminished “rake” the State makes from legalized gambling which have accelerated the mess.
You see funding for education has pretty much been dumped in the laps of the local real estate tax payers. Traditionally 73% to 75 % of the total cost of my property taxes goes to the local grade school, the local grade school’s pensions, the local high school, the local high school’s pensions, the local community college, and a rollover of the college’s bond issue. This breakdown applies to virtually every property owner statewide. Education has gotten a free ride until now. Yes, you heard me... Many school districts have even accumulated a SURPLUS, or a “SURPLUS RESERVE,” by dinging the locals for more money than they actually needed (year after year) by raising the assessment rates and/or the property assessment base by a maximum allowable amount each year. This by the way is not illegal.
I should state how as long as the increase is below a “certain” percentage, a referendum for this annual “increase” is NOT required. How conveeenient....! Now that the hand writing is on the wall financially, such school districts do not want to wipe out these accumulated reserves, knowing full well that the money shortfalls will continue for years. To balance their coming budgets, or to at least decrease the coming deficits; we saw the lay off of teachers, teachers helpers, and even administrative personnel for the school year beginning in fall. Statewide over 20,000 will lose their jobs in the education sector.
State revenues raked in from racing, casinos, the lotto, the lottery, and now poker machines are supposed to go to education. This was “marketed” to the public by the “legislative slick willies of Springfield because these sin taxes “were for the children.” Give me a break... this was nothing but a colossal bait and switch. It’s true that “ALL” state gambling proceeds go to education, but every dollar so generated means that one less dollar needs to be transferred from the General Revenue Fund to the Common School Fund. Looking at only a couple of journal entries shows that it is the General Revenue Fund which truly benefits. The hundreds of MILLIONS raised by these “sin taxes” have not provided the schools with ONE additional buck of funding since they went on the books. We are also now learning that the teacher pensions’ collections are following the plight/ blight of the Social Security System. Collections are growing, but so are future funding deficiencies. We pay more: yet we get less.
By law... State Government is to provide a “SIGNIFICANT” portion of the funding needs for public education. This does NOT mean 51%, 40%, or even 32% in the current state of affaires. It is true that funding for education is the single largest state expenditure; so that when the revenues decline, education takes a hit by the cuts. Politics is about finger pointing, skirting the real problems, and passing the buck (but not to education). Like in virtually all other spending areas, the state is presently not meeting its promised obligations on what they said they would pay. Just over 200 schools districts are in deficit situations this current school year alone solely because the state has closed its checkbook.
To “remedy” (as in defer problems forward) classes will be consolidated raising class sizes to 19 to 22 “instructional units” (all kids are not counted equally), teachers’ helpers will be curtailed, and titles of administrative personnel (I don’t have a clue what they do) will be furloughed. God forbid that program cuts (don’t you dare touch football or basketball) and a four day school week are now on the table. I should point out that my class in grade school at 32 to 36 students is still the largest one to ever go through our system. Each year we had one teacher, no teacher’s helpers, no program planners, no psychologists, no information technology specialists, and classes were taught in one language --- ENGLISH. No child was ever left behind! And... I got a very good education. Ahem!!!
Does Springfield really put education (elementary, secondary, and university) first? Can property taxes continue to rise while underlying property values continue to decline? Can the FEDs and the State continue to place special demands on the districts without providing the funding (more unfunded mandates)? Will any true remedial action be taken? More same old, same old? Remember... “it’s for the children.”
I’m Fred Cederholm and I’ve been thinking. You should be thinking, too.
Copyright 2009 Questions, Inc. All rights reserved. Fred Cederholm is a CPA/CFE, a forensic accountant, and writer. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois (B.A., M.A. and M.A.S.). He can be reached at email@example.com.
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This story was published on March 29, 2010.